God, John Templeton and me: How a single phone call changed my entire life

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Last week Dr. John Templeton – the late president and chairman of the John Templeton  Foundation – was rightfully eulogized as a world-class philanthropist, dedicated family man, and steadfast champion of traditional values: honesty, hard work, generosity, all of which he exemplified. But I myself will always remember him as a very dear friend – and the man who, nearly a decade ago, changed the course of my life with a single phone call.

It happened in the fall of 2006. My new primetime series, “Where Did It Come From?” had just premiered on the History Channel. Naturally, I was excited – being the host of my very own show was a lifelong dream come true – and so were my representatives, who were busily working the phones setting up the next big project for me.

Yet in the midst of the outward ebullience there welled up inside of me a profound sense of disappointment with my life. Born in the rough-and-tumble world of East Los Angeles, I’d managed to make something of myself through hard work and education. I had earned good money, was driven around in limos, and stayed at five-star hotels.

“Is this all there is for me?” I wondered aloud in late September, 2006, while walking the trails of my idyllic country property in Massachusetts. I looked skyward and queried God: “Is this why you led me out of the barrio – just so I could have a cushy life?” I wasn’t willing to believe that was so.

During one of those soul-searching strolls, I received an unexpected answer to my questioning – in two parts. The first, a single word in all capital letters: CHANGE. The second, an internal voice telling me, “Be patient, I’m preparing you for something different.” The two-part answer repeated itself several times in the course of the following weeks.

Looking back on that exciting experience, it’s so very clear to me that a hand much more powerful and deft than mine was at work during the entire time, from start to finish. A hand that guided me away from my self-absorbed life and toward a world of selflessness.

Then it happened. In late October, I  received a phone call out of the blue from Dr. Templeton – “Jack” as he was known to his friends. He called asking for a favor: Could I recommend  someone to produce a PBS special on the subject of America’s foundations and the important work they do to solve pressing human problems?

I introduced him to a pair of very competent producers and believed that was the end of the matter. It wasn’t. For shortly afterward, I received yet another – I believe, providential – communication from Jack, this time inviting me to mastermind the entire initiative. I accepted on the condition that we think of producing something far more influential and exciting than a one-hour television special. I suggested a feature film, inspired by a true story of philanthropy, that would encourage people to be more generous with their time, talents, and treasure. Jack didn’t blink: Let’s do it! he said.

In order to do a proper job of things, I uprooted my family from rural Massachusetts and relocated to Los Angeles – before we had a house or even a neighborhood lined up! It was a journey of faith – our Abrahamic journey – and, against all odds, we found a perfect place to live within 24 hours of our arrival.

Four years later, the movie – LITTLE RED WAGON[1] – was finished. Inspired by the life of a boy who sets out to end child homelessness in America, it’s really the story about anyone who’s ever set out to do something out of the ordinary, who takes risks and faces impossible odds to make a positive difference in the world.

In the undertaking of this multimillion-dollar movie project, it was my story, it was Jack’s story. For I’d never produced a motion picture in my life and Jack’s foundation had never funded one. Indeed, more than a few persons within the organization’s staid leadership were opposed to the idea; they strongly favored sticking to funding academic research.

“CHANGE” … “Be patient, I’m preparing you for something different.” Where did those prophetic answers come from? From deep within my subconscious? From God? I have my beliefs, but what I will always treasure is the euphoric look on Jack’s face when the movie premiered theatrically in Philadelphia, home base for the Templeton Foundation. “Thank you, Michael,” his wife Pina whispered into my ear afterward. “You’ve made Jack very happy.”

I wish I could take credit. But I can’t, really. Looking back on that exciting experience, it’s so very clear to me that a hand much more powerful and deft than mine was at work during the entire time, from start to finish. A hand that guided me away from my self-absorbed life and toward a world of selflessness. A hand that helped me and my colleagues navigate past a million-and-one obstacles and setbacks that stood between us and the successful completion of the film. A hand that compelled me to ask our post-production supervisor to put the initials SDG – Soli Deo Gloria – at the end of the movie credits.

Above all, a hand that nine years ago brought me together with Jack Templeton. A man of enormous intelligence and compassion. A man who radiated joy. A man whose own Abrahamic journey led him to take a chance on me, a novice filmmaker … and a movie that celebrates stepping out in faith, taking chances, and making a difference.